Divorce is a difficult time for children: that won’t be news to many people. But it can be especially upsetting for adopted children who sometimes also have more challenging circumstances or backgrounds and their adopted family could be the first stability they’ve experienced in their lives. This makes a divorce especially difficult to process – and leaving the adoptive parents feeling even more guilty than other parents whose relationships end.
What is the law regarding adopted children and divorce?
Despite these emotional complexities, the law concerning adopted children following divorce is clear. In all but a few rare instances adoption is permanent. Once the adoption process has been finalised, family law makes no distinction at all between biological and adopted children. This means that following divorce, the adopted child and any siblings will typically live with one parent on a day-to-day basis – the “resident parent” – while the “non-resident” parent will be able to continue seeing him or her, just like a biological parent, unless there is a very good reason for this not to happen.
This “contact” – time spent with the child – could be agreed informally between the parents or negotiated with the help of a solicitor or mediator if the relationship has become strained and the erstwhile couple are struggling to agree. If you do involve a family solicitor the agreed amount of contact will be committed to a ‘parenting plan’: a formal statement of the time each parent will spend with the child, and the role they will play in their lives following the divorce. Parenting plans are encouraged by the family courts even if the parents are on good terms because they remove ambiguities and misunderstandings. A parenting plan will also aid your case if the situation ever deteriorates and you need to ask the family courts to intervene.
However much they might want to, and welcome the prospect, adoptive parents – just like biological parents – have no specific legal right to continue seeing the child after divorce. Instead the family courts promote contact because a continuing relationship with both parents is seen as being in the child’s best interests: this applies to both adopted and biological children.
Naturally, other routine elements of childcare following divorce also apply to adoptive parents. The non-resident parent may be required to pay child support, for example, and they will also hold “parental responsibility”: the legal status of parenthood. This means they will have a say in important matters concerning the child, such as their education and any medical treatment that may be required.
How can I help my adopted child deal with divorce?
Of course, every child is different and will respond in different ways to the news of a divorce or separation. But even if they don’t seem visibly upset, continued reassurance goes a long way. Make sure adopted children fully understand that you and your ex will remain their parents and that they are still a permanent part of your family. Reassure them, too, that the divorce is nothing to do with them: it’s not their fault. Although they may not say so overtly, many children inadvertently shoulder some responsibility when their adoptive or biological parents divorce.
Instead, calmly explain what is going to happen. Use judgement in explaining why: an explanation may help, but the truth may also be upsetting or inappropriate.
You can help your child feel secure by focusing on their welfare – and by providing stability. Maintain familiar routines and rules. This will help them to understand that while a big change is happening, the fundamentals of daily family life will remain firmly in place.
Be mindful of how you frame the divorce to your children. It’s not a competition or a struggle to see who can come out on top. Don’t criticise your soon-to-be-former spouse – children typically find this very unsettling if they feel loyalty to, and love the absent parent, as most will do.
If handled badly, divorce can leave children with bad memories and a sense of insecurity that lingers long into adulthood: don’t be that kind of parent.